It hasn’t been a good year for school boards. In the last 12 months, many of the local bodies that govern public schools have been taking a beating over policies dealing with the COVID pandemic that many parents believe are hurting their children. Many boards have also faced furious pushback from the public about their willingness to go along with teachings on critical race theory that seek to divide Americans against each other. In those instances, much of the mainstream media rallied to the defense of the education bureaucrats against grassroots protests that many on the left wrongly labeled as racist or a reflection of a conservative spirit of “insurrection.”
But the school board of McMinn County in Tennessee wasn’t so lucky.
When its members decided to remove Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from classrooms in the Eastern Tennessee district, they became the new face of censorship in America. While they deserve every bit of the scorn they’re currently receiving from a broad cross-section of Americans in the press, popular culture and social media, it would be a mistake, as some are doing, to try to conflate the banning of Maus with other controversies, including the ones concerning efforts to keep woke indoctrination about race out of the schools.
Indeed, Art Spiegelman, the artist/author of Maus, is seeking to gin up that argument by speciously claiming that the debate over critical race theory was a “dog whistle” for anti-Semitism, and that Holocaust education or anything about Jews will be the next to be booted out of the schools if right-wing book banners get their way.
Spiegelman should be deeply grateful to the idiots on the McMinn County school board. Maus remains a classic of the genre as the first graphic novel to be taken seriously as a work of literature. It’s also a groundbreaking effort that successfully brought the story of the Holocaust to a mass audience, especially among the younger set, who may be resistant or intimidated by conventional books on the topic, but might read a volume presented like a comic book even if at full length.
But while Maus remained in print and has been incorporated into many school curricula, it had been a very long time since it or Spiegelman was a topic of popular conversation, let alone a subject that was trending on Twitter. Within days of the news of the school board’s decision breaking, the book—first published in two volumes more than 30 years ago—jumped to No. 2 (for the complete version) and No. 3 for volume one on the Amazon bestseller list at the time of this writing, a feat that far exceeded its reach when it first hit the bookshelves.
It’s an iron rule of history that when you ban a book, you only make it more popular. By doing so on one about the Holocaust—even on the dubious grounds that the presence of some vulgar or profane language or panels involving nudity, and its depiction of violence and suicide—the board made themselves appear as if they were out-of-touch Puritan spoilsports, as well as people who didn’t care about the destruction of European Jewry.
Their explanation in which they acknowledged Maus as “a meaningful piece of literature” and “the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust” fell flat when they also added that it was “too adult-oriented for use in our schools.” The notion that the children of their community needed to be insulated even from a cartoon depiction of the Holocaust is risible. So, too, was their insistence that local educators would be tasked with finding a suitable substitute to teach about an unspeakable atrocity that wouldn’t offend local community values. And it spawned mass giveaways of the books from stores and others who purchased it for potential readers in order to send a statement about how wrong it is to ban books.
The story was irresistible for much of the media, if only because it seemed to be a rerun of the 1925 Scopes trial in which a high school science teacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution in nearby Dayton, Tenn. That so-called “monkey trial” in which celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow debated former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan about the relative merits of the Bible and the works of Charles Darwin made the state into an international laughing stock, something that was immortalized in the fictionalized version of the incident in the play and movie “Inherit the Wind.”
Now, thanks to this school board, the people of Eastern Tennessee are once again being portrayed as moronic hayseeds whose primitive ideas about education aren’t so much material for satire as they are a reason for the rest of us to feel morally superior to them.
Still, once we’re done alternately mocking and denouncing the McMinn County book-banners, we should be wary of embracing the narrative that Spiegelman and other like-minded figures on the left are eager to impose on this controversy.
After all, there is a world of difference between book censorship and the nationwide backlash against critical race theory.
The leftist talking point that such indoctrination in the schools is non-existent is gaslighting. Elementary-school kids are not being drilled in the higher academic version of this leftist worldview in which race consciousness is regarded as the only relevant way to think about an individual or society. But a watered-down version of it, whereby children are inculcated in ideas about collective identity in which the world is divided between those who are deemed victims solely because of their skin color and others are pronounced guilty of white privilege because of their background, is spreading in the schools. It is being incorporated into lesson plans, activities and books that have become required reading.
The fact that critical race theory and its corollary—intersectionality—enable and spread anti-Semitism is alarming even for many traditional Jewish liberals, who are outraged about what is being taught. Their anger is a function of what is actually happening throughout the country and not because they were misled, as leftist outlets would have us believe, by reports on Fox News.
Indeed, it was hardly surprising that the Maus controversy sparked a bizarre and ignorant discussion about the Holocaust on ABC’s “The View” talk show in which Whoopi Goldberg (someone who has claimed that she “identifies” as a Jew even though she is not Jewish and is unsupportive of actual Jewish causes or beliefs) moved from mocking the Tennesseans and implying that they were actual anti-Semites to claiming that the Holocaust was merely “white people doing it to white people.” The discussion, which was supposedly an effort to promote Holocaust education, illustrated the problem with universalizing this unique event into one merely about “man’s inhumanity to man.”
The censors we should be most worried about are not isolated rural school boards that make bad decisions about books based on their concerns about the way popular culture is immersing their kids in a deluge of vulgarity and explicit sexual images. Rather, it is the woke commissars infiltrating the education bureaucracy and the arts that are imposing fallacious versions of American history, like The New York Times’ error-ridden “1619 Project,” and other efforts seeking to divide Americans on the basis of race and redefining Jews as beneficiaries of “white privilege.” It is they who are seeking to rid the libraries and the classrooms of content that is seeped in traditional patriotism. They are the ones who want to ban belief in the ideals of a colorblind society based on equal opportunity and replace it with a racialist catechism rooted in the false god of “equity.” No one should be banning Maus from school, but this kerfuffle should not be used as a false cover behind which the woke purge of American education and culture should be able to hide.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.